There is a point on any project when you know it’s going to work.
When my agent asked me, in the politest possible way, never to send him another piece of fiction again, I understood. He was trying to be kind. Stop wasting the long months it takes to write a book.
To be fair to him, I had never been convinced that either of the manuscripts I’d handed to him had worked either. He had done his utmost but enough was enough.
I was quite relieved to find that in spite of his advice, I couldn’t stop writing.
And when I found myself writing a scene in which one of the Apple Scruffs, the young fans who hung around The Beatles in 1968-9 was found dead in an alleyway, close to EMI’s soon-to-be-famous Abbey Road studios I remember having this peculiar feeling; “I have no idea where this is going but I know this is going to work.”
That turned out to be the first chapter of my 1968 crime novel A Song From Dead Lips.
Part of it was discovering the right form. I am a huge fan of the 60s and 70s thriller writer Nicholas Freeling and novels like Love in Amsterdam and Guns Before Butter. With the massively growing popularity of European noir I think it’s well worth revisiting his work; set in Holland, it has a remarkable sense of time and place. They are novels which immerse you in the culture of northern Europe, its food and in all its social spikiness.
“The past,” L P Hartley famously says at the start of The Go Between, “is another country.” What if I wrote about 1968 as if it was another country? In many ways it is. Our image of 1968 may be all tie-dyes and acid but the truth is that 45 years ago, Britain was a very different place. It’s not just different from Britain in 2013; it’s different from how we imagine 1968 to have been.
I realised that the book would work if I regarded it as much as crime fiction as a cultural fiction – attempting to tread in Freeling’s footsteps. This was a Britain which was being overtaken by a tidal wave of pop culture that pitched one generation against the other. People like my parents were from a generation that struggled with the idea of pop music.
For all the supposed radicalism of the Vietnam marches and the Paris uprisings, 1968 was a man’s world of jobs for life, Sunday dinners and limited pub opening times. This was an unrecognisably racist country in which Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech struck a chord with the majority of British people. Feminism had yet to arrive. There were policewomen like my character WPC Tozer, but they were allowed to do only a fraction of what a modern WPC is allowed to do. The pill was available, but in the 60s the idea of free love was a man’s fantasy come true rather than a liberation for women.
And then there was Biafra. A forgotten largely war but one which, by 1968, had turned into one that was incredibly violent. This was territory I knew about because my own family had lived in Nigeria and had had to leave the country in 1966 as the upheavals began and had returned there in 1970 after the bloodletting and mass starvation had subsided.
What if some of the ripples of that war had spilled over into the London of Carnaby Street and Abbey Road studios?
So I ignored my (former) agent’s kind advice and carried on. And was thrilled when, over a year later, my new agent called me up to say that Quercus thought it worked too. And they wanted the first three books in the series, a narrative arc that takes WPC Tozer and her superior DS Breen into the even more uneven year of 1969.
‘A Song from Dead Lips’ (Quercus £14.99) by William Shaw